Abyss Ahead

Hu Jie, Spark 2013–19, video, color, sound, 114 minutes.

THE FEARLESS CHINESE DOCUMENTARIAN Hu Jie’s Spark is a group portrait of a small circle of dissidents who, in 1960, put out a clandestine publication of that name. (Icarus is releasing the film on DVD paired with 2019’s The Observer, a useful but rather too brief documentary about Hu.) They were mostly students or academics who had been banished to the hinterlands during the “Anti-Rightist” campaign of 1956–57 for deviating from Communist Party doctrine. Disillusioned patriotism is a truer description: They wanted the Chinese revolution to live up to its proclaimed ideals and become genuinely socialist and democratic instead of the unmercifully authoritarian regime it emerged as.

While these firebrands resembled any group of angry young mid-twentieth century intellectuals who started an underground magazine in Paris, New York, London, or Prague, there was a big difference. As the movie’s opening titles explain, “By the end of 1959, famine broke out in China as a result of the Great Leap Forward”—the Great Leap Forward being the oxymoronic name for Mao’s program of massive agricultural collectivization and crash-industrialization that stripped peasants of their land and tools, moving them into communes that functioned as dehumanizing, hard-labor penal colonies. On “an extremely simple mimeograph and some wax paper,” their tiny organ of dissent inveighed against the chain of disasters that followed; once discovered, the writers and their associates were imprisoned and in some cases executed. They were reasonable, smart, decent men and women, but there was also a spark of idealistic madness in openly agitating for the overthrow of the Maoist revolution-cum-cult; against insurmountable odds, they risked everything.

Hu’s approach is outwardly simple: A self-taught director, he favors long sequences of talking heads interspersed with folkloric inserts of contemporary peasant life unfolding where the recounted events took place. A tiny funeral band will appear beside a tombstone in the middle of nowhere, a gravel-voiced oldster with a doomsday grin will sing a Maoist anthem, or Hu will stop a roadside passerby and ask where the executions used to be held (the man points down the dusty road: “Over there,” chuckling as if at the memory of when the circus would come to town).

It’s all woven together in a powerfully unobtrusive way. Spark is a very localized film that sticks to its subjects’ points of view, mixed with readings from the essays and poems they published. Familiarity with the famine’s history is assumed, so there’s not too much in the way of contextualization. Addressed to a mainland Chinese audience, this is not as obvious a stratagem as you might assume: Both because this history has been so thoroughly suppressed in China and because Hu’s work has been banned there. (The Observer shows how the authorities monitor his movements and shut down screenings—canceling entire film festivals on account of his participation.)

Hu Jie, Spark 2013–19, video, color, sound, 114 minutes.

As excerpts of their pieces are read by Hu in voiceover, the screen fills with the pages of Spark, often silhouetted against a backdrop of barren snowy ground or a picture of stark trees, the camera moving in on underlined passages. The sound of wind, distant thunder, burning paper is another motif: Disconsolate sounds arising out of the mundane, elemental world.

It is hard to grasp the entirety of what’s being communicated. There is so a strange simultaneity of spiritual and factual dimensions here that words like “incommensurate” and “incomprehensible” can scarcely begin to convey. Take the anodyne term “mass starvation,” which journalists will use as shorthand for the famine. What does that in fact mean? The number of dead spoken of in The Observer is thirty million, which by most accounts is a conservative estimate. Yang Jisheng’s history of the famine, Tombstone (2008), places the casualties at thirty-six million; others speak of as many as forty-five million. Mostly between 1959 to 1961, through a process of deliberate brutality, bureaucratic malfeasance, ideological denial, and militant determination, roughly three times more people perished in China than were murdered in the Holocaust. Approximately ten million dead per year. Around 850,000 per month; about 28,500 per day. To do this math is to look directly into hell.

Speaking in the present day (a fluid term: Hu’s interviews were conducted roughly between 2007 and 2016), the writers—especially the sad-eyed, unbowed Xiang—recall scenes and incidents that mortify the soul. Long trails of corpses lying along railroad tracks and roadsides. Soldiers posted to shoot those who tried to flee. (One of the demands made in Spark was for freedom of migration.) Tales of cannibalism that could belong to a fable illustrating the proverb that revolutions eat their own. Counties where half the population starved to death. Desperate farmers rioting at grain depots where all their crops had been taken for shipment to the cities; others working twenty-four hours a day to meet impossible quotas. On and on—the pages of Spark were lit with responses to this snowballing avalanche, to the willful blindness and insanity of its architects and enforcers.

What was the practical purpose of such a publication? By printing less than a hundred copies of the first issue (the exact number is in some dispute; a second issue was prepared but aborted), was it anything but an internal document for a private discussion group? Spark cofounder Gu Yan believed that there had to be high-ranking party officials who were as dismayed by the “People’s Commune” as his group was: “The key was to affect those who had power, and then we could change the entire situation.” Cofounder Zhang Chunyuan agreed and decided to smuggle it into the hands of officials and party leaders; you could fault them for naïveté, but the only other options were capitulation, cynicism, or resignation.

Hu Jie, Spark 2013–19, video, color, sound, 114 minutes.

Watching the survivors here is to be struck by an overwhelming sense of recognition: old radicals talking about youthful days of struggle and epiphany, decades melting from their faces as they revisit the passions and ideas of fifty years ago. Tan Chanxue’s beaming grandmotherly demeanor is hard to reconcile with the hardships and jeopardy she endured. Hu finds a woman who, as a middle schooler, witnessed Tan’s show trial, where the cadres paraded her and her colleagues as counterrevolutionary pariahs. Her memory of Tan standing tall before the tribunal syncs up with Tan’s own modest recollection of unflustered dignity in a revelatory flash: a defining moment of a life recovered for posterity, imprinting itself on Hu’s camera the same way it did in the schoolgirl’s mind.

Every one of these figures is indefatigably present in Spark. The excitable, wildly gesticulating Gu Yan seems to physically embody his manifesto “Abandon Wishful Thinking: Get Ready for a Fight.” Xiang Chengjian comes to tears at times describing the things he saw, and the even more terrible things he learned of other, harder-suffering areas. He also talks about his public trial, where he was possessed with the suicidal bravado to shout at his inquisitors: “Are you humans? Don’t you know what’s going on in the countryside? You aren’t blind or deaf. Even if you were, you could smell. The smell of the dead’s everywhere.” They may even have been moved by his outburst—he lived.

Others, like Zhang Chunyuan, were liquidated. Du Yinghua, a sympathetic county committee secretary, was put to death, his family disgraced. The Christian poet Lin Zhao was perhaps the most soft-spoken yet incorrigible of them all. Hu made a 2004 film about her entitled Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul: She resisted so fiercely in prison that the warders put her in a wire and cloth mask to muffle her denunciations. Before she was finally shot, she continued to write critiques of the regime from her prison cell, in her own blood.

Irony is a cruelly inadequate term in conjunction with such lives, these dedicated anti-nationalists whose crime was not revanchism but seeking a more just society rather than swapping one corrupt dictatorship for a more savage and hypocritical one. Spark shows just the tip of this great historical iceberg. But its concision is most valuable in how it allows a viewer to see in direct, intimate, human terms the result when unbending absolutists “replace facts with their assumptions.” In a historical moment when we are all grappling with violent and oppressive systemic tendencies inherent in neoliberal social orders, we might remember the forefathers of Marx-esque revolution have warehouses of skeletons. The Spark comrades wondered at how easily their fellow revolutionaries had transitioned into jailers, police, executioners, and a ruling class. And one question the film will leave you with is: Do such wonders ever cease?

Hu Jie’s Spark is being distributed by Icarus.